It’s hard for me to believe it will be 20 years this summer since the day that irrevocably changed me, but there it is. Almost half my life, though I’d like to fib and say it’s been most of it, or something, because otherwise I feel old.
I was a couple years out of school for journalism and public relations. I spent a couple of years working in baseball, nothing spectacular or particularly permanent, though, I was working toward a future in the game.
At the time, all I knew of NASCAR, of any kind of racing, was what I had seen on SportsCenter or, going back a little further, Wide World of Sports, which I watched with my dad as a kid, mainly to see that poor hapless guy fall off the ski jump again. I knew a few of the drivers by name, but it wasn’t my thing. I’d be annoyed if racing cut into the baseball coverage.
When my dad came home with a couple of then hard-to-come-by tickets to the summer race at Loudon, I said I’d go. There had to be a reason all those people wanted to go to this thing, right? If nothing else, there’d be some crashes or something.
This was in a day when the stands were packed to capacity at every race; it took a coupe of hours to make the 40-minute drive into the track and people were crammed into the stands like sardines. I had never watched an auto race of any kind flag to flag before, and I expected that it would be one of those things I’d have fun with once.
If only I had known…
When they fired the engines, it got my attention. It wasn’t just that it was loud, it was that they had a voice—and it was angry, pent-up, and terrifyingly wonderful. The pace laps were like watching a captive tiger pace in its cage, agitated, waiting, desperate.
The moment that the pace car dove to pit road remains in my mind as the moment, the one when I was forever changed. It will always be, to me, the most perfect moment in racing because anything and everything can happen in the moments and hours to come. Every fan, in that moment, can believe that their favorite driver can win. But all I knew right that was that I would never, ever be the same.
I don’t remember every lap or every pass of that now long-past day. I remember that Jeff Burton won in that black and hot pink No. 99, and I remember that Dale Earnhardt finished second while closing on Burton. What struck me that day was that racing was so much more than drivers going in circles as fast as they could, punctuated by the occasional crash. As I watched Earnhardt pick off one driver at a time in that cold, calculating manner of his, it was like watching a chess match. He didn’t just drive hell-bent for leather as I had assumed was the case, and in watching that strategy and patience, I got it. I understood the meaning of racing, if not the meaning of life.
The following spring, Earnhardt won the Daytona 500, and I asked my dad if we could go to that summer race again. It became our tradition for the next few years. I sometimes went with someone else, but the relatively few times I went to the track with Dad are the ones that stand out now.
The years slipped by; I went back to school, became a teacher, and began to write. As I enter my 15th year covering the sport, I can reflect on the immense change over the years, on the sport’s rapid rise and the fall back to Earth. Earnhardt was killed in that devastating crash at Daytona, his son and namesake left to grow up overnight and carry the sport on his slight shoulders. Jeff Gordon won everything in sight and was rewarded with part-ownership in a race team.
He hand-picked the driver who would supplant him at the top of the mountain. Jimmie Johnson touched immortality when he won his seventh title, something which, for the entirety of my memory of racing, only two drivers had done.
Gordon, the last driver standing from that 1997 summer’s race, retired, and Chase Elliott, the son of Bill, who also raced that day, took the reins of his No. 24, now more tastefully painted in NAPA blue.
Drivers have come and gone. The racing has changed radically. Series where independent teams once thrived have closed their ranks to all but the elite. The rules changed, and changed again.
None of it happened overnight, of course. Twenty years is a long time, half a lifetime. It seems that way, though. The day came when pure racing wasn’t enough for some fans, so the sport added playoffs and franchises and planned cautions. It’s not the same sport. It will never be the same sport, which is too bad, really, because those halcyon summers two decades ago were really something. And it will never, ever be the same.
The drivers I learned about the sport by watching are gone now, replaced by others who I can not only watch but evaluate and understand.
Dad passed on a few years ago, so I know there can never be a day like that first one again, though I think sometimes that the simplicity of it gives me a certain perspective when I write, even now. I’m not a fan in the sense of those who sit in the stands and cheer for their favorites and enjoy the day for what it is; I left that behind when I picked up a pen and as the years have gone by, I grow further away from that day.
But that day is always with me. It’s there when I speculate on how the sport might be that day for its fans. It’s there when I watch a driver pick his way through the field and I know what it’s taken to get there. It’s my hope that the sport will be healthy fro years to come, so that new fans can experience that day. Because it’s the day I will never, ever shake.